Analogous Thinking: The Genius of Mix-and-Match

Want to be more creative? One promising path to creativity what’s called analogous thinking. This approach suggests often you can reach the best solution to one problem by looking at what already exists in a different but somewhat relevant field. By adapting elements of those works to your own purposes, you can create something new, exciting, and effective.

It’s estimated that “perhaps 80% of creative ideas” follow this formation. The key is clever recombinations.

Years ago, composer, actor, and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda noticed striking parallels between Robert Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and the classic hip-hop narrative. The result was Hamilton, a hip-hop biographical musical narrated by Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s political rival and eventual killer. It’s a fresh take on the monumental genius and equally monumental egos of our founding fathers, capturing the 18th century revolutionary spirit for new generations of Americans.

(Miranda is not the first to find grist for musicals in unlikely places; as creativity expert Gary A. Davis points out, the Broadway juggernaut Cats was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. But Miranda may be the first to reimagine George Washington’s cabinet meetings as vitriolic rap battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.)

For instance, in the 90s, engineer and bird-watcher Eiji Nakatsu of Japan was working for the rail company JR-west when he observed a kingfisher diving for fish while barely disturbing the water. Realizing that the head and beak shape resulted in incredible aerodynamics, Nakatsu modeled the front train car after the bird to create a quieter, faster bullet train.

The shape of Pringles potato chips was inspired by how tightly and compactly wet leaves can stack on each other. (If you prefer a heartier, more old-fashioned chip, you may be able to find other parallels between Pringles and dead leaves.)

The ubiquitous fastening material Velcro, beloved by toddlers everywhere, came out of a fateful 1941 trip in the Alps, when Swiss engineer George de Mestral and his dog got covered in burdock thistles. When he got home, de Mestral was surprised by the thistles’ sticking power. Intrigued, he grabbed an old microscope and magnified a sample. The burr was covered in tiny hooks that stuck to the natural loops created by fabric or fur.

De mestral says he instantly recognized the analogy between thistles and clothing. He’s quoted as recounting his reaction at the time like so: “I will design a unique, two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of my pants. I will call my invention ‘Velcro,’ a combination of the word ‘velour’ and ‘crochet.’ It will rival the zipper in its ability to fasten.”

Whether this was his exact thought process, or, more likely, how he remembered it later (keeping in mind that memory is not a perfect recorder of events), the key point is that de Mestral’s analogous brain made the link.

As all good invention stories go, his bold challenge to the tried and true zipper initially brought him shame and ridicule. De Mestral, however, was undaunted, and spent years employing top-down problem-solving, working through a variety of material applications like an Edison lab, until, through trial and error, he hit upon nylon sewn under infrared light as the perfect hooks for his artificial burrs. He patented the idea in 1951 and never looked back as Velcro went on to become a multimillion-dollar business.

So the next time you’re feeling stuck, it might be time to find a local park of your own. You never know what new burrs are waiting to be discovered.

Creativity Crunching: How Do We Measure Human Ingenuity?

Scientists trying to get to the core of creativity encounter a very basic problem at the outset. Unlike, say, size, or time, creativity is extremely difficult to measure. It’s even difficult to define.

Frequently, people searching for a creativity-judging metric focus on what’s called “divergent thinking”. This is the ability to come up with a large number of solutions to a given problem. It’s the “no wrong answers” school of brainstorming. Divergent thinking is all about casting the widest possible net, and then gauging success from overall net size.

There are arguably some benefits to this approach. For one thing, since divergent thinking concerns itself with the sheer amount of ideas generated, measuring it is as simple as counting.

What do these experiments look like? Imagine someone hands you a paper cup and asks you to think of as many uses for that cup as you can. Someone with a knack for divergent thinking would be off and running: a drinking vessel, a fly catcher, a drain stop, a place to store crayons, a hat, and so on. One of the standard divergent testing questions is, “How many uses can you devise for a brick?”

This approach lets scientists easily assign scores to large groups of test subjects, generating huge amounts of easy-to-interpret data. Assuming, of course, that divergent thinking is a useful lens for examining creativity in the first place.

If you’ve ever walked out of a “no wrong answers” brainstorming session feeling unsatisfied, you may already grasp the controversy at play here.

Some scientists dismiss the relevance of divergent thinking, arguing that, at the very least, it’s not a useful way to assess a person’s creativity. Sure, it’s easy to compare one person’s score to another, but it’s difficult to prove that high scorers here are more creative in real-life situations.

For one thing, divergent thinking tests don’t seem to have any correlation with a person’s future creativity. There isn’t much evidence that finding many uses for a brick one day translates into any creative advantage later in life.

And outside of a testing facility, most of the time, solutions only count as solutions if they’re actually useful. In other words, a paper cup would make a terrible hat.

In addition, most people would agree that when we judge a person’s creative output, quality trumps quantity. Originality or novelty is considered an essential part of the mix. Judging someone’s creativity only by their number of ideas is like saying that Nora Roberts, who has published a massive amount of books—over 200—is a more creative writer than Maya Angelou.

To add another wrinkle, University of Iowa neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen suggests that the human race might owe far more of its creative achievements to convergent thinking, the direct opposite of the divergent approach. Convergent thinking doesn’t concern itself with finding a lot of answers, but with winnowing down to the single best solution. “A process,” she notes in an article in The Atlantic, “that led to Newton’s recognition of the physical formulae underlying gravity, and Einstein’s recognition that E=mc 2.” But nobody is clamoring to test for convergent thinking. It’s tough to know just how to tally it.

Creativity and IQ: What 1500 Kids Can Teach Us

How does your IQ affect your creativity? One might assume that having a super high IQ would garner you more powerful creative flights of fancy, and more control over the process, whether top-down or bottom-up. But as is so often the case with preconceived ideas, things are not always what they seem.

We can trace the American fixation on IQ back to the beginning of our involvement in World War One. The U.S. War Department was searching for ways to rank their recruits by intelligence, and to identify who would be best suited for which jobs, from scouts to officers. For help in making these judgments, the military turned to psychologists like Lewis Terman of Stanford University.

Terman had tweaked an intelligence test devised by the famed French psychologist Alfred Binet to create a new version called the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. He initially promoted this as a tool for classifying developmentally disabled children, but the U.S. military was so impressed with Terman’s work, they hired him and six others to create the “Army Alpha”, an assessment test which was administered to 1.7 million GIs.

Since at the time, there was no other widely circulated intelligence test to use as a benchmark, it’s hard to measure the test’s net effect. However, the allies went on to win the war and Terman went on to screen children for signs of “genius level” IQ.

Several years later, Terman used these screening results to kick off a study aimed at understanding the wide-ranging effects of “genius”. (Eventually, the study would abandon the emotionally charged—and difficult to quantify—label “genius” in favor of “gifted.”) He began in 1921 at Stanford. Terman looked at 1500 children, male and female, attempting to track everything from their developmental progress, their interests when playing, their medical condition, how much they read and how many books were available to them at home. Then he continued to periodically check in with those same individuals throughout their lives.

An early example of a longitudinal study, it’s also the longest-running of its kind and still continuing today—to be concluded at the death of its final subject.

This work eventually begat Terman’s multivolume Genetic Studies of Genius, considered a seminal document in American psychology. (That’s not to say that Terman’s scholarship all holds up by today’s standards; in testing across cultural and racial groups he reached many conclusions that are unquestionably racist.)

However, he did debunk a number of then-common misconceptions about high-IQ children: his research showed them not to be physically frail or socially maladjusted. In an era where parents often held their children back a grade to prevent the kid from being the youngest in their class, Terman found that being the youngest in a class was, in fact, a predictor of a high IQ.

For our purposes, Terman’s most interesting result concerns creativity.

To the extent it could be measured, Terman found that the 1500 study subjects did make an above-average number of societal contributions in creative fields. This, on the face of it, would suggest that a high IQ delivers a key creative boost, but in a separate study, sociologist Pitirim Sorokin showed that a random group of children coming from equivalent socio-economic backgrounds would do just as well. This would seem to indicate that environment plays a larger role, which makes sense: if you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from, you’re less likely to give, say, oil painting, your full focus.

Faced with the data, even Terman had to admit: “We have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.” This sentiment is echoed by many other studies: abnormally high IQ is no guarantee of academic achievement or high creative output. It’s been suggested that Terman’s research supports what’s called the Threshold Theory, which states that an IQ of 120 (above average but certainly nothing extraordinary) is enough to achieve “creative genius”. Anything above that point doesn’t seem enormously helpful to the individual.

This seems to suggest that creative thinking is well within the reach of a large number of people, given hard work, focus, and a certain dose of luck.